"No European team ever wins an eSports tourney," a friend recently tweeted at me. I wanted so desperately to argue otherwise, but those eight words, unpalatable though they may be to gamers in the West, have undeniably been true for several years now.
The position of Western eSports teams on the global stage makes for depressing reading. As StarCraft II reaches its fourth World Championship climax, 15 of its 16 remaining teams hail from South Korea, the same country to produce the tournament's previous three winners. League of Legends seemed like it might miraculously buck the trend, with European team Fnatic taking number one spot at the Worlds in 2011, but since then the winning teams have exclusively hailed from Korea and Taiwan.
Dota 2 is arguably only the only big eSport game in which Western teams regularly find success, but any victories are typically hollow, with opposition from the East hardly close to the calibre of the aforementioned disciplines. With exception of China, Dota 2's popularity in the East is middling at best; but even with only a single, half-hearted foot in the door, South East Asia still produces 50 percent of the top performing teams in the game. Suggesting that Korea is a perennial underachiever at Dota 2 is as desperate as saying the United States aren't exactly amongst the elite of international cricket.
Yet all is not lost. The events of last week's League of Legends World Championship quarterfinals at London's Wembley Arena may represent results that build into a wave capable of overturning the status quo. Confounding expectations, two European teams – newcomers Origen and old-timers Fnatic – have reached the semi-final stage of the tournament, where they go up against Korean teams SKT T1 and KOO Tigers respectively (or they may have already done so, depending on when you're reading this – the matches take place on October 24th and 25th). One team making it this far could be considered good luck, but an even balance of European and Eastern teams at this stage suggests that something more significant is at work.
So how have these two managed to upset the odds? My first guess is the one that most readers will have already arrived at: shit loads of practise. It's not unusual for eSports athletes to put in 14-hour shifts in front of their screens, breaking only when their bladders demand it. Stories of one day off per month have circulated. To reach the top level in eSports, and remain there, takes more than mere dedication – players must adhere to the kind of unforgiving regimes that burn out many who try before they've made their mark. Or, at least, that's the pervading image of the sport's top-performing teams.
In London, I meet up with Trevor "Quickshot" Henry, the Riot shoutcaster who can be heard commentating on almost any LoL match worth watching, to dig for answers on Europe's newfound success. What he says surprises me. I'd been anticipating news that that both Origen and Fnatic had become Victorian workhouses, in which fleeting glimpses away from the screen were punishable by 40 lashes. Nothing of the sort, as according to Henry the success of these two teams isn't due to 24/7 play with brief breaks to dampen desperate corneas, but an intelligent and robust infrastructure.
Modern eSports teams coming out of Korea consist of much more than a handful of players and a single coach. These are the visible roles, sure; the ones we see on stage and cheer for, the ones who soak up the limelight. But they're far from the complete picture when it comes to what makes a juggernaut eSports squad like the seemingly unstoppable SKT T1. Fnatic and Origen may have been already been professional teams, but behind the scenes they've adapted their culture and practices to standards found in the East, and it's finally bringing them up to speed with the Korean masters.
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These teams' architectural innards are vast. In addition to the knowledge of a coach, modern teams also draw upon the expertise of dedicated analysts who examine the metagame and study the strategies of opposing teams, feeding this vital knowledge back into the system. Knowing what LoL champions your lane opponent is likely to pick, or how they transition from the early to late game, is the difference between a talented team and a truly effective one. This job is so broad in its scope that teams have begun to employ not one but five analysts per squad, each focusing on a specific in-game role.
Nor do the changes stop there. Playing LoL and its eSports brethren might not be aerobically testing, but its demands make such physical and mental demands of players that injuries and poor personal care are commonplace. I'm told that in the ranks of Fnatic there exists no room for this kind of slack. "Their coach, Deilor, has actually banned soft drinks from the Fnatic house," Henry says. The team is also forced into the gym for to exercise on the basis that a healthy body promotes a healthy mind. Players cook themselves balanced meals, get regular sleep and never take their practise regimen to extremes.
Eefje "sjokz" Depoortere, host of the LoL World Championships, knows the teams intimately and tells me a similar story. "Deilor isn't afraid to be the bad guy," she says, noting that the Fnatic coach runs a tight ship based on strict adherence to a policy of self-care and balance rather than endless hardship. "As far as I'm concerned, Fnatic is the pinnacle of eSports professionalism in the entire Western world." High praise, indeed.
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You may snigger at the idea of pro-gamers sweating on a treadmill to improve their clicking skills, but this is a results industry and so far the scores speak for themselves. A host of North American and European teams are still killing themselves by attempting to emulate the out-dated (and somewhat racist) stereotype of the "hard-working Asian pro" with nothing to show for their efforts. Michael O'Dell, the managing director of Team Dignitas, a prominent pro-gaming name on both continents, recently told ESPN: "In terms of physical fitness, professional gamers are not going to be top athletes... Our League of Legends team in LA, They live in a house 24/7 during the season, and players play a lot – that's what they do." And where is Team Dignitas in the League of Legends World Championships? Nowhere.
Which can't be said for Origen and Fnatic, about to face off against the two strongest Korean teams in the LoL World Championship finals. With a little luck, one of them may emerge the first European winner of the competition for years. And where they're leading, where they're evolving, you can bet others will play their way into comparable positions of efficiency and harmony.
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